Super Bowl

by | April 2018


Every weekend they stream north
from the interstate, the adventurers and explorers of the Adirondacks, their vessels piled with skis and snowboards, kayaks and bikes. Off Exit 23 they’ll stand impatiently at the traffic lights in Warrensburg, and make pit stops for gas and supplies, before turning onto Route 28, full speed ahead.

Twenty miles later, at 60 miles per hour, they’ll enter the bypass that slices past North Creek. Down the long hill to the valley below, their hopes fixed on the waiting lakes and trails ahead, few will notice the two signs pointing to the Business District, or the shadowed steeples of Main Street mixed behind the maples and birches.

Fewer still might see the small entrance on the left, or the only sign marking it, a cairn of granite with a brown and blue plaque above, Ski Bowl Park. A high dune juts up against the entrance, the north edge of the Bowl, and runs along the bypass, cutting off any view of the base.

Before Gore and Whiteface, before the bypass and the interstate, the North Creek Ski Bowl was one of the preeminent ski areas in the country. By the mid-1930s, thousands were arriving every weekend, not by car, but on snow trains, the Friday overnight from Grand Central. It was the site of the first ski tow in the state, the first ski patrol in the country. And even after the war, when the snow trains stopped unloading, it was still the best town park a kid could want, with skating and toboggan slides, and an overhead lift that topped the ridge.

In 1964, when the Gore Mountain Ski Center opened on the other side of the next ridge, the business owners imagined a windfall rushing down to the village. In that first year the skiers still had to drive into North Creek and circle by the old Bowl before climbing the access road to Gore. But the bypass cut through in ’65, whisking the skiers up without a hint of the history below. It sealed the town from the summer crowds as well, slowly suffocating the small shops, restaurants and hotels.

It also laid down a 30-foot wall of asphalt between the villagers and their Bowl, suffering it a long and quiet death. By the turn of this century the lift had been torn down and the historic trails overgrown. That year the old ski hut, built by the WPA in 1936, burned to the ground. The Ski Bowl’s primary value to its townspeople was as a sand mine for the highway department, and the road that took you to the dump.

It appeared as if much of the town’s park would disappear into the six-million-acre state park surrounding her, the trails fading into the ridge, one more in a wilderness of ridges. But the best story here is how that decline has been arrested, and then reversed. You can’t see much from the bypass, but those in the know are now slowing down and making that left turn.

They’re coming to ski those trails of history, as well as some of the most challenging new terrain at Gore Mountain. And they’re coming for the new Nordic Skiing Center, which in three years has evolved from a high-school practice track to the site this March of the U16 New England Championships. When the snow melts, they’re here for the expanding network of mountain-bike trails, designed by the former ranger in these parts, Steve Ovitt, and maintained by the new nonprofit Upper Hudson Trails Alliance. The Bowl is back, a partnership of state and local resources, bound by the tireless efforts of those who never left it.

The story begins quietly, in 1996. The main ski tow at the Bowl hadn’t turned for 20 years, but the Gore Mountain Ski Area was expanding up and outward. It needed more water to make more snow—the little reservoir below the North Chair couldn’t keep up—and so for the first time in its history, the big mountain turned its gaze below, to the other bypass in North Creek, the Hudson River. The pipeline to the river would eventually more than triple Gore’s capacity. It did little to change the Bowl, except for one important thing: for the first time the two were connected.

The same year the pipeline went in, Gore Mountain hired a new general manager, Mike Pratt. He’d grown up in Lake Placid, learning to ski at small hills like Fawn Ridge and Scotts Cobble—areas whose old trails and tows were, like the Ski Bowl, disappearing into history. “New York has more ski areas than any other state in the country,” he said, “and more ghost ski areas too.” Pratt looked down the pipeline and began to take an interest in the ghost ski area below him.

In 2002 he would initiate the first partnership between the mountain and town, to operate a tubing hill on the easternmost slope of the Bowl. In exchange for the privilege, Gore Mountain would pay the town one dollar annually. They would also provide free season passes to every student in the district.

Four years later, a new contract was signed. Gore would replace the abandoned tow with an overhead lift, the Village Chair, whose lighted slopes would lead to a restored lodge at the bottom, constructed by Gore, with grant and insurance money the town received when the original hut burned down. The next step completed the connection. A new lift, the Hudson Chair, replaced the old T bar. From its top, skiers could take Peaceful Valley Road across the bridge to Gore proper. Or they could stay in the Bowl and ski the old Ridge trail, with its sweeping views of the Hudson River and the picturesque village bundled on the bank.

The Gore expansion brought skiers down to the bypass, and many of them were crossing into the village. What they found was a picture from a postcard, a village sealed off by time. Instead of the sprawling main streets of the surrounding towns, North Creek was an easy walk from one end to the other, past churches and shops, new restaurants and a renovated hotel. Even the train had begun running again, connected to Amtrak in Saratoga.

This history wouldn’t be complete, however, without telling of the connections that went the other way—not between the ski center and the town, but between the town and its Ski Bowl. Before Gore reopened the Bowl’s old trails, Steve Ovitt was opening another chapter from the early days, the “ride up, slide down” years. When those first skiers emptied from the snow trains in 1934, there was no rope tow in the Bowl. They’d get onto trucks waiting at the platform, and for 25 cents they’d ride to the top of Barton Mines Road and ski a four-mile, 40-minute odyssey down to the Bowl.

Ovitt was the Department of Environmental Conservation ranger for the state lands around the Bowl, part of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. He studied the maps of those original trails, and walked the woods below the mine, reading the tree growth, feeling his way back through the leaps and twists. He worked with locals like Don Greene, who knew the ridges and valleys like the inside of his home. Together they recreated the original trails and made some new ones on the way.

The Adirondack Park’s roads are well stocked with trailhead parking lots that direct visitors to the highest peaks and the farthest lakes, but Ovitt was more interested in the paths that connected communities—the old logging roads and horse trails that made the wilderness a part of those communities. When he retired in 2011, he started his own company, Wilderness Property Management. One of his first projects was to design a ski- and mountain-bike trail system for North Creek’s Ski Bowl Park.

The trail begins at the base of the Bowl, then winds up and into a forest of roller coasters, each colored to a skill level, and with names such as Hoot and Heart Brake, Snake’s Tongue and On the Rocks. At the end of the day, skiers or bikers can slide or ride down for a beer at Becks Tavern or the Inn on Gore, or take the Carol Thomas trail under the bypass for a glass at barVino.

Ovitt is working on an expansion of the trail system, as well as a new connection that will tie together Garnet Hill Lodge’s cross-country-ski center, in North River, with the trails at the Ski Bowl. These projects are a mix of public and private support, state and local backing, but the glue that binds them is the recently formed Upper Hudson River Trails Alliance, or UHTA (sounds like oohtah). Dick Carlson was director of Garnet Hill’s ski center for 25 years, and he founded UHTA on a dream—to one day connect it all together, a network of trails, recreation venues and lodging that would cover more than a hundred miles.

Much of Ski Bowl Park’s revival has been built on the backs of organizations like UHTA and Friends of the Park that advocate for projects, write grants, seek investors and partners, and see them through to the finish. Most importantly, they’re still there when the project is complete, securing its use, protection and promotion for years to come.

After the ski hut burned down in 1999, a group of concerned citizens formed the Town of Johnsburg Park Advisory Committee, a long name for a simple goal, to reclaim the Ski Bowl as a vital space in the town’s culture. Their lead activist, Andi McKee, advocated tirelessly for years, but it wasn’t until the group morphed into the nonprofit Friends of the Park that they could secure the grant money to push the local and state entities into action. Two other vital groups involved with the Bowl are the Johnsburg Youth Committee, which oversees the summer kids’ program there, and Treks, an outing club for kids.

The success of these committees is driven by the people behind them, and no one has been more critical to the Ski Bowl’s revival than the husband-and-wife team of Kelly and Bob Nessle. Since retiring as a schoolteacher, in 2006, Kelly’s helped write more than 50 grants for the four groups, raising nearly $400,000. Hardly a day passes when she’s not somewhere in the Bowl, watching where the money goes. Sometimes it’s a team of volunteers, but usually just her husband, Bob, a retired engineer, who does most of the digging and hammering there. He was the manager of the North Creek Ski Bowl in the ’60s, and watched its long decline. He pushed for the contract that gave free ski passes for the students, and he’s at every town board meeting, pushing for more. To its credit, the town has listened. Through a decade of tax caps and mushrooming costs, it’s continued to find new funding for the Ski Bowl.

Kelly started the Treks program in 2009. Volunteers offer to take kids rock climbing, hiking and rafting. Treks also has a Nordic skiing program, which gets kids on skis as soon as they can walk, and is one reason why the local school, Johnsburg Central, has such a strong Nordic team. Another reason is the Ski Bowl, where the team practices. Gore usually starts snowmaking there in early December, and most weekdays until Christmas the team has the place to themselves, getting a head start on the other schools.   

Their races used to be held at Garnet Hill, but in winter 2016, the year of no snow, the Ski Bowl was the only patch of white for a hundred miles. It hosted every high-school race except one. Johnsburg’s Nordic coach, Steve Tomb, brought Gore’s Mike Pratt to see the action: 300 skiers on the makeshift track, and twice that many spectators. Tomb is an English teacher with a master’s degree in outdoor recreation, and he walked Pratt up the trails that Steve Ovitt had built, showing where a world-class course could go. That summer, Gore Mountain’s bulldozers were carving up the old tubing hill and installing snow guns in the woods. Last winter the Junior National Qualifying races were held there. The parking lots quickly overflowed; spectators had to park at the train station and be shuttled up.

The new head of the Nordic Center is Paul Allison, a former skier for Johnsburg, who came in third in the state in 2005. The new operations manager for Gore Mountain is James “Bone” Bayse, a local white-water rafting guide who was an original member of the Ski Bowl Park Advisory Committee. He’s the one overseeing Gore’s new plans for this summer, which include lift-serviced mountain-biking, tubing and a “zip coaster” that will carry harnessed riders on a dizzying trip around the Bowl. There’s a new entrance planned for the Ski Bowl Park, which will intersect with the entrance to North Creek’s Main Street. Bob Nessle hopes to build a New York State Museum of Skiing on that corner. He’s formed a board of directors. His wife, Kelly, has started writing the grants.

There’s a yurt now standing where the old lodge used to be, and nights during ski season there’s usually a big fire burning out front. It’s become a place for local families to gather and cook out. A lot of the parents don’t ski, but their kids all have passes, and they stand around the fire, eating and drinking beer, watching their kids on the jumps and half-pipe. It’s still their local town park, and so much more.

If You Go

North Creek’s Ski Bowl Park hosts skiing and boarding events throughout the season. Learn more by calling (518) 251-2411 or visiting www.goremountain.com


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